Mayar Sherif Delighting Fans, Breaking Barriers

Mayar Sherif (photo: Natasha Morello/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 9, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Mayar Sherif arrived at her second Grand Slam main draw and first on a hard court at the Australian Open under less than easy conditions. After all, the Egyptian-born Sherif endured 14 days of quarantine upon arriving in Melbourne last month before she even got to play a match.

Each time she plays, like she did Tuesday afternoon against French qualifier Chloe Paquet on Court 6 at Melbourne Park, she carries the weight of an entire Middle East nation. It can’t be easy, but the 24-year-old from Cairo, who was collegiately educated at Pepperdine University in the United States, accepts the challenge. This time, Sherif made history as she became the first woman from Egypt to win a main draw match at a Grand Slam, after overcoming Paquet, 7-5, 7-5, to reach the Australian Open second round.

“There was a lot of nerves out there,” the 131st-ranked Sherif admitted during her post-match press conference. “Thank God I got to manage it and I finally played better at the important moments and I was able to break and win the match.”

Sherif finished her historic triumph by smashing an ace on match point, then exclaimed “allez” toward a vocal group of fans who cheered her every point. No doubt, they will be back at Melbourne Park on Thursday for her second-round match against No. 104 Kaja Juvan of Slovenia.

When Sherif was asked to describe how it made her feel, she said: “Obviously it means a lot because finally this was a barrier I had to pass, a mental barrier. With the conditions that are here, it was very, very tough to adapt to it, especially to adapt my game to it. It took us awhile. Courts are faster, the heat, everything happens so fast; it’s very tough to control the ball.

“I’m very, very happy with my accomplishment and I’m going for more.”

Last fall, Sherif made history when she qualified for the French Open and became the first Egyptian woman to qualify for the main draw at a major. She lost in the first round to Top 10 opponent Karolina Pliskova, then went on to win a $100,000 ITF title in Charleston, S.C. last November. Before arriving in Melbourne, Sherif won three Australian Open qualifying rounds in Dubai. Suddenly, she was no longer just a clay-court threat but also was showing great skill in winning on hard courts, too.

“For me, adapting my game was difficult because these are the fasted courts I’ve ever played on,” Sherif said. “But it means a lot to me because these are the fastest courts and I still managed to compete and still win.

“I’m playing at the highest level here, so that means a lot to me. Even though this is not the favorite surface – this is not my comfortable place to be – I still competed, I still managed to adapt my game and I still won. So, this means a lot for the future.”

Sherif has a large and loyal fan base, both back home in Egypt and wherever she plays – and sponsors are now lining up back home, such as Vodafone, Allianz, Peugeot and Ora Developers. The recognition means a lot to her.

“It’s not a burden at all; it’s completely the opposite,” Sherif said. “I feel very supported from the Egyptian people, from my partners, my sponsors. It’s been great, and honestly it’s just pushing me forward and forward because I feel that there are so many people behind me and so many people now, I know in tennis, so that just only pushing me forward.”

For now, Sherif is having the time of her life in Melbourne, delighting her fans and breaking down barriers – but staying grounded, too.

She said: “I still need, obviously, a lot of experience, a lot of matches like this [against Paquet], because I need to be around those kinds of tournaments, those kinds of players, a lot of time to be able to go into the higher rounds and so on.”

Rafael Nadal: A positive start, a chance to improve

On Tuesday afternoon, World No. 2 Rafael Nadal played in his first official match in almost three months. He defeated No. 56 Laslo Djere of Serbia, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 in one hour and 49 minutes to move into the second round against 177th-ranked American qualifier Michael Mmoh.

Nadal, 34, was asked during his press conference how it felt out on Rod Laver Arena playing in his first match of the 2021 season. He answered, “Well, I was able to win in straight sets. It’s always a positive start for me. Always difficult after not playing for a while, playing an official match in a while. A good start. Happy.”

Soon, the subject of Nadal’s back, which prevented him from competing for Spain during last week’s ATP Cup, came up. “Is your back feeling good, and is it up to five-set tennis if it comes to that?” a reporter asked.

“I don’t know,” Nadal replied. “My back is not perfect, as I said a couple of days ago. Every day that I’m able to go through, probably there are more chances to get better. That’s the thing now. There is always a chance to improve, and that’s why I’m here playing and fighting to try to get better and then give myself a chance. …

“After tomorrow, another match. I need to go day-do-day and just try to stay positive. Of course, every day that I am trying to stay here longer is a day with a chance to get better finally. So, that’s what I am trying. Trying to do all the things possible to be ready to compete, for what I came here.”

The education of Carlos Alcaraz

At age 17, Carlos Alcaraz of Spain made his Grand Slam main draw debut on Court 17 Tuesday afternoon. He beat fellow qualifier Botic Van de Zandschulp from the Netherlands, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4. It was his first best-of-5 match.

“I’m very happy to win today in my first Grand Slam,” Alcaraz said, a smile beaming from his teenaged face during his post-match press conference. ” I tried to enjoy, to play my game. I think I did it. I enjoyed the match; I got the experience. I’m excited to play my second round.”

World No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who recently hit with Alcaraz, was asked about the youngster during his own press conference Tuesday. As Alcaraz tries to break through on the ATP Tour, there have been comparisons to Nadal in the areas of mentality and intensity.

“Well, he has it. He has intensity. He has the passion,” Nadal said of Alcaraz. “I mean, he has the shots, and he’s always the same in my opinion. He has all the ingredients to become a great champion.

“Then, it’s all about how much you are able to improve during the next couple of years. Then, that depends on how much you will be able to improve that will make the difference on – he’s going to be very good. But if you’re going to be very good or if you’re going to be an amazing champion, so that’s all.”

What they’re writing

• In “Can a Country Control the Virus and Host a Grand Slam?” The New Yorker‘s Louisa Thomas has written about “the special challenge of hosting – and playing in – an event held in a place that has done a superlative job of controlling the virus.”‘s Steve Tignor writes about “Three to See” – three matches to follow on Day Three at the Australian Open.

Moments of victory

Around Melbourne Park